Basil Brown – the Invisible Archaeologist
Before we start – excuses
In 2007 Mrs John and I visited Sutton Hoo and viewed the huge ship grave and the National Trust exhibition of priceless royal treasures with a sense of awe and wonder. AWESOME! It is over eighty years ago since this seventh-century Anglo-Saxon burial ground and royal grave was unearthed in a Suffolk field, and it still has an inescapable fascination. In the same year I purchased Preston’s book and have read it many times. I also penned a review at the time and this blog revisits that time in my life.
My review centred on Basil Brown, the hero of the story. The appellation ‘Invisible Archaeologist’ is only one of many. He was also referred to as the ‘Local Excavator’, the ‘Suffolk Heritage Explorer’ and many more. The way he was treated by the ‘proper’ archaeologists will resonate with detectorists everywhere. He probably knew more than they did!
This has been one of the most difficult blogs I have ever done. Doing research and then losing it all; intense pain after a fall; depression, and a sense of worthlessness were just some of the ingredients in the mix. My intention was to post on the same day as the Netflix film was released. It was not to be.
John Preston’s discovery that his aunt, Peggy Piggott, had helped out on the dig prompted him to research and write this book. Digging deeper he discovered a story of intrigue and heartbreak, thus providing further material for this, his fourth novel. The story is a quiet dramatisation of the events of the events of 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Preston approaches the drama of the excavation through the eyes of those who were there. Basil Brown, a local man with a great interest in archaeology and self taught, first unearthed the ship and was eventually pushed aside by Charles Phillips, fellow of Selwyn College, expert in all things Anglo Saxon and pompous Cambridge don who eventually had Brown removed so he could take charge of the dig himself. Even though Basil was demoted to menial shovelling duties he is for me the real hero of this story. I suppose it’s because I like fighting for the underdog.
Mrs Edith Pretty, the widowed owner of Sutton Hoo House on whose land the burial mounds lie was a keen spiritualist who tried to make contact with her dead husband and it is her interest in this had some bearing on her decision to start excavating the mounds.
But best of all is Peggy Piggott, Preston’s aunt, a young history scholar who interrupted her honeymoon to take part in the dig. She has just married a limp wrested archaeologist who was brought in by the professionals when the importance of the dig became clear. It is clear that their marriage was doomed from the start.
During the dig, all of these characters find that the archaeology takes over their personal concerns. Love, memories and personal advancement take second place to those emotions churned up by the finding of a coin, a bead or a belt buckle. As the group contemplate the scale and archaeological wealth of the burial ship, their excitement increases. I never thought the subject of archaeology could be so gripping!
Although I was thrilled by the treasures on show, one of my highlights was snooping around Basil’s shed. For me it was very evocative. © JW
The descriptive narrative of the novel, especially the practicalities of the dig, will resonate with many detectorists. We can identify with some of the characters and Basil Brown in particular. The rivalries and clashes of the archaeologists are vividly portrayed, but the treasure is eventually presented to the British Museum by Mrs Pretty (her land – her treasure, was the decision of the court).
This is a wonderful and evocative novel. John Preston has skilfully recreated the suspense and the excitement of this important excavation whilst at the same time giving us an emotionally charged drama. I found this a delicious read. A bonus is the delicate portrait of a pre-war Suffolk, few cars, empty roads and dark pubs with decent beer!
Basil Brown only recently got his due
Brown was a self-taught archeologist. A Suffolk resident, he left school at the age of 12 and later found work at the local Ipswich Museum. When approached by Pretty, the museum recommended Brown for the excavation.
After the dig, however, Brown’s name wasn’t cited alongside the found artefacts. Shortly after the discovery of the ship, an archeologist from the Ministry of Works descended on Sutton Hoo and Brown’s role was slowly relegated. He wasn’t mentioned for years in the British Museum’s permanent collection .After the excavation, however, Brown’s name wasn’t cited alongside the found Arteacts. Shortly after the discovery of the ship, an archeologist from the Ministry of Works descended on Sutton Hoo and Brown’s role was slowly relegated. He wasn’t mentioned for years in the British Museum’s permanent collection.
In the summer of 1951 visitors from across the country flocked to the Festival of Britain exhibition on London’s South Bank. It was a showcase of Britain at its best.
One of the centrepieces of the archaeology display was the Sutton Hoo treasure with its now iconic Anglo-Saxon masked helmet. The unearthing of the burial ship and treasure on high ground above the River Deben in Suffolk had been one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century. And yet the Suffolk man who had originally excavated the burial ship did not even get a mention on the festival’s display boards.
In 2008 the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology and History held a special service in Mr Brown’s honour and awarded him a plaque. The Basil Brown memorial plaque is on show at Rickinghall Inferior Church (St Mary’s).
The face mask is the helmet’s most remarkable feature. It works as a visual puzzle with two possible ‘solutions’. The first is of human face, comprising eye sockets, eyebrows, moustache, mouth and a nose with two small holes so that the wearer could breathe. The copper alloy eyebrows are inlaid with silver wire and tiny garnets. Each ends in a gilded boars head – a symbol of strength and courage appropriate for a warrior. The second ‘solution’ is of a bird or dragonfly and upwards. Its tail is formed by the moustache its body by the rose, and its wings on the eyebrows. The head extends from between the wings and lays nose to nose with another animal head at the end of a low iron crest that runs over the helmet’s cap.
The seemingly simple task of choosing winners presented me with problems and I thank you for your patience and understanding. The top three winners all gained 19 points and to determine who was first Mrs John pulled the names out of a hat. Thank you to those taking part.
1st – David Hartley print – PAUL (CLAY)
2nd – Sheffield Plate Marks – Dwayne
End of an Era
I’m reluctant to do this, but ends must. I have to sort out my affairs. The contents of my study will have to go. You’ll notice that I have almost every copy of The Searcher since 1985, about 400 magazines. They take up a lot of space. If you can collect from my address then they come with my best wishes and are yours for nowt. Just make sure that your vehicle has room to store them.
Other books will soon be available, but you will have to collect. Again, no charge, but I’ll always accept a small donation to the Florence Nightingale Hospice, Cancer Care, Altzheimer’s Society or Ataxia UK.